In the late 1990s, when I was a young journalist, I got fascinated by what was then an obscure issue: the disenfranchisement of people with felony records. In several states, mainly in the Old South, once you were convicted of a felony it was all-but-impossible to get your voting rights restored. In an age of mass incarceration and the wholesale conviction of millions of young men and women, disproportionately poor and black and brown, this meant a rapidly growing pool of disenfranchised.
By 2000, when a presidential election was determined by a few hundred votes in Florida, about three quarters of a million Floridians couldn’t vote. Nationwide, roughly 5 million were disenfranchised. By 2005, when I published a book on this hidden scandal, Florida’s disenfranchised population was north of one million. By 2018, it was more than 1.5 million.
In Florida — as in several other southern states — somewhere between one in five and one in four African-American men were prohibited from voting. Florida’s system of re-enfranchisement basically gave the governor discretion as to who and how many to restore the vote to; in recent years, outgoing governor Rick Scott made a point of rarely re-enfranchising people.
All of which is a preamble to a massive, primal, yawp of pleasure at the overwhelming “Yes” vote Floridians gave to Amendment 4 on Nov. 6. Needing 60 percent to become law, the Amendment, which re-enfranchises almost all felons (excluding murderers and sex offenders) upon completion of their sentence, ended up with more than 64 percent.
I shall keep yawping for the rest of this column. Because something extraordinary stirred in the American conscience in the midterm elections. Sure, the Senate became slightly more red, but that is really just a sign that it is a broken, increasingly under-representative system for distributing political power. Remember, each state, regardless of size, has two senators, giving a Wyoming resident roughly 70 times the representation in the chamber as a Californian. The party’s Senate victory was far more a reflection of GOP dominance in a handful of ultra-conservative rural states than it was a statement of the national mood.
Here’s where that national mood really was on Nov. 6: Congress had been so gerrymandered that the GOP believed it could maintain a House majority even while losing the popular vote by 6 percent. On the day, despite Trump using all the authoritarian propaganda tricks at his disposal — including calling out the military against unarmed asylum seekers — the party was walloped, losing roughly three dozen seats and the House majority. Younger Americans, in particular, voted overwhelmingly for change and against a party that is now consistently, systemically undermining democratic norms.
In governors’ races, the GOP seems to have squeaked out wins in Florida and Georgia — although that’s not yet certain. Readers would have guffawed if I had written a few years back that African-American candidates from the left wing of the Democratic Party would come within a hair’s breadth of victory despite GOP-orchestrated purging of voter rolls in statewide elections in Florida and Georgia. (Similarly, had I predicted then that a liberal Democrat who was pro-choice, pro-environment, supported gun control and advocated single-payer health care would nearly defeat Ted Cruz in Texas’s Senate race, my editors might have fired me for being a fantasist.)
Meanwhile the Democrats flipped seven gubernatorial races, including the marquee race against Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Even deeply conservative Kansas elected a Democrat, and, in so doing, banished into political exile the truly noxious, vote-purging, race-baiting Kris Kobach. Roughly 170 million Americans now live in states with Democratic governors. If the Florida recount ultimately goes to Gillum, that number will increase to 190 million. Down-ticket, the Democrats picked up well over 300 state legislators.
Finally, let’s return to ballot initiatives. True, California voters didn’t pass Proposition 10, on rent control; but they did vote to expand funding of housing programs for the mentally ill. Californians also rejected a move to eviscerate the property tax base and they said no to repealing the gas tax.
Massachusetts voters protected transgender rights. Michigan voters legalized marijuana. In the deep-red states of Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska, where politicians refused to expand Medicaid, voters did it themselves through ballot initiatives.
Trump has, of course, spun the midterms as a “victory” for his brand of divisive, demagogic, violent politics. Don’t believe it for a New York minute. If he really were feeling secure, he wouldn’t have fired former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in what looks like a panicked attempt to curb an investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Nor would he have kicked CNN’s Jim Acosta out of the White House and then threatened to revoke White House passes of more journalists. Those are the actions of a weak leader, not a confident one.
In the world of real facts, tens of millions of Americans rejected Trump’s dark vision. Slowly, a moral decency is reasserting itself in this damaged land. “Let America be America again,” the great poet Langston Hughes once pled. Last week, it began to be so.